Putting History to Work: The Labor Archives of Washington as a Model for Forging Stronger Connections between Labor and the Academy
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Putting History to Work:
The Labor Archives of Washington as a Model for Forging Stronger Connections between Labor and the Academy

In 2008, labor history in the Pacific Northwest was facing a crisis. Collections were being thrown away or were decaying in basements, attics, sheds, and boiler rooms. Records creators needed a place to save their treasures from age, mildew, and insects. Even collections that were retained and stored in good conditions were inaccessible to scholars, remaining unstudied. Reduced in staff due to the recession, the University of Washington's Special Collections library division was unable to accept new collections or process existing ones. Two thousand cubic feet of labor-related holdings existed in various states of preservation and description; many collections lacked online finding aids, and those with them often lacked detailed inventories. No online topical listing of labor collections existed, so remote or inexperienced researchers had to either visit in person or rely on remote reference queries to understand UW's labor holdings. The labor community had no place to donate their records even if those materials survived moves, mergers, or leadership changes. Researchers had very limited ability to understand the significance, scope, or intellectual contents of collections.

That year, a group affiliated with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) approached the chair of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at the UW (James Gregory) about this crisis. Together, they formulated a bold solution: found a labor archives. The Bridges Center group approached UW's libraries about partnering to found the Labor Archives of Washington (LAW). The resulting fundraising campaign was a surprising success. The ILWU's Longshore Division provided critical and sustained funding; the Washington State Labor Council provided the go-ahead, fundraising help, and a convention resolution of support. Dozens of other unions and organizations and hundreds of individuals have donated close to $700,000 since 2008. [End Page 9]

In 2010, the organizers had sufficient funds to hire a labor archivist. In that position, I have focused on curating collections, managing the processing of new and legacy collections, and increasing online access via enhanced description and digitization projects. All labor collections now have online finding aids, all legacy finding aids have been scanned and attached to online versions, and these are in the process of being improved so that they will be keyword-searchable and indexed by search engines. An online listing points researchers to labor collections, and a digital portal allows them to see highlights and, in some cases, entire digital collections. I have curated exhibits and created events highlighting LAW collections and taught workshops on the importance and methods of preserving labor records to the labor community. I also teach orientations for students and faculty of local colleges and universities on how to conduct research in our collections, and I promote the archives at conferences of professional and stakeholder organizations.

In 2015, the Washington State Labor Council lobbied for state funding for LAW. Surprisingly, we got funding, which covers the salary of the labor archivist, a part-time student curatorial assistant, and processing supplies. State funding enabled hiring a full-time assistant archivist to work directly with the labor community, helping with a regional labor-records survey and day-to-day archival processing operations.

The creation of LAW proved to be an organizing tool for closer connections between the academy and the labor and social justice communities. As such, it offers a model for similar projects to preserve labor history and bring together various stakeholder communities. As James N. Gregory detailed in his Labor article,

Nothing has done more to build the scholar-union relationship than the Bridges Center's decision . . . to create a labor archives at the University of Washington. . . . [The] Organizing Committee, which includes most prominent union leaders in Washington State, has strengthened ties and trust while it raises money. Our experience in building [LAW] affirms the old axiom that the best way to organize people is to ask them to work on a project. Every state deserves a labor archives, and the project of building one is a great way to advance campus-labor-community partnerships.1

The Labor Archives began as a temporary...


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